Letter from the Publisher: Supporting Independent Booksellers
My wife Anna and I have a tradition, passed on to her by her father, of writing our names and the date on the title page of every book we come to own. It’s less of a gesture of possession and more an acknowledgement that books are markers; that what led us to buy that particular book at that particular time says something about what was transpiring in our lives and what sustenance we were seeking. Sometimes we jotted down the town we were living in as well; in a few I even recorded my state of mind at the moment of purchase. (In one book of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, I wrote, “November 2003. Rainy Oaktown. After a difficult autumn.”)
Buying a book is not a trivial act, but rather a deeply considered choice that is more event than impulse. What better place to engage in such an event than a brick-and-mortar store, preferably an independent one replete with that homey, musty scent and the slant of sun that spotlights the swirling dust motes and eventually lands on a corner of a bookshelf that surely must hold a book you simply have to read.
For me, bookstores evoke some sort of hypnotic state; before I know it, I’ve made my way to the cashier, sheepishly indulging in a true guilty pleasure. It’s a highway robbery of the best sort.
And so it has been with great sadness that I’ve read of so many physical bookstores temporarily closing their doors in the wake of the Coronavirus. Local bookstores have been surviving against the odds for some time in this age of consolidation, but the pandemic has exacerbated an already precarious situation. Some shops, like Walden Pond Books here in Oakland, have adapted by taking and shipping online orders and offering curbside pickup. Still, their sales are way down without the usual foot traffic. Some, like City Lights in San Francisco and Marcus Books in Oakland, have initiated successful crowdfunding campaigns to stay afloat. Considering how slim bookstores’ margins are even during the best of times, it’s hard to imagine most of them making it through this difficult period without substantial support from those that value them.
In this spirit, North Atlantic Books is initiating two ventures. For one, we have created a new partnership with Bookshop, a b-corp founded late last year as an alternative to online corporate book retailers that provides a virtual bookstore for those indies that do not have that capacity on their own. Our website (where we as a nonprofit also sell books directly) now offers a link for all of our books to bookshop.org, which as an organization has raised to date over $900,000 for local booksellers.
Secondly, we are directly supporting independent bookstores in our immediate vicinity by purchasing gift cards from them and offering these to readers in giveaways throughout the next few weeks, which you can follow on our Facebook and Instagram. We figured the most helpful way to support local book businesses was to put money directly into their pockets right away.
Whether it’s purchasing from a nonprofit, a socially conscious corporation, or a mom-and-pop shop integral to its neighborhood, the time is ripe to support organizations that integrate the welfare of people and planet into their business practices. As has been clear for a long time, the extractive, profit-above-all, transactional model of doing business is simply not sustainable. What a benefaction it would be if those working more equitably filled the spaces cracked open by our current disruption. Some businesses will thrive, and some will stumble—which will it be? Where will you lay your dollars down?
For now, I’ve had to live without the weekly trips my son and I used to make to our local bookstore. It truly was a rite of passage for us, with me holed up by the poetry section and him across the store in young adult, united by our affection for holding a printed book in our hands, the way a well-constructed sentence can carve its way into your heart. I’ve still made a few purchases from the store over the phone, chatting a little longer and more intimately than usual, and then picking up the books a few hours later at the curb, the exchange awkward between gloved hands and masked faces, but our mutual love for books alive in our locking eyes.
—Tim McKee, Publisher of North Atlantic Books